There I was again, thinking about how ridiculous the concept of a “delegitimization campaign” against Israel is. How I’ve never seen any talk of it amongst those who are allegedly involved. How it must be paranoid fear or some kind of conspiracy that causes hasbaraniks and politicians to keep going on about it.
And then it hit me. Could it be? Could it be that there actually is a delegitimization campaign? One that I’ve actually been involved in without realizing it, however marginal my role? Maybe they were right all along?
It’s not so surprising that Israeli democracy is going down the drain so quickly. Israel has never taken democracy, equality, or the rule of law as seriously as it takes security.
It sounds like the right attitude for a state in Israel’s situation — until you think about it a little more. The point is supposed to be keeping the people of Israel safe. So supposedly, the state should use any means, including violence, and by whatever process, even one that bypasses the safeguards of democracy, in order to get in the way of attempts to harm the state or its citizens.
2011 started with some difficult days for Israeli democracy. Starting Saturday morning, the IDF has been scrambling to explain away the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah of Bil’in, who in all likelihood died as a result of IDF tear gas (and probably not hyper-rapid leukemia or the common cold.) On Monday, Ma’ariv gave us reason to believe that Netanyahu’s call for direct talks with the Palestinians on the core issues is less than honest; their sources indicate quite simply that this government is captive to its most extreme elements and unable to serve the majority. In its 2010 annual summary, the GSS (Shabak) describes the demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah, Ni’lin, Bil’in, and Nabi Saleh, as “clashing against the security forces.” And speaking of the GSS, the High Court of Justice denied, Tuesday, a petition requesting information on how many detainees the GSS has kept from seeing an attorney (on the grounds that this would “potentially harm state security.”)
I handwrote the following post on the train to Dresden on December 24th. I had to edit it less than I thought I would. I apologize for the very sparse sources. If any particular fact seems dubious to you, please leave me a comment and I’ll try to track down some links.
Many people have pointed out how society is addicted to the concept of security — in the US, in Israel, in the UK, really everywhere in the developed world. This can lead to some paradoxical situations. For example, as Roi Maor points out, the wave of xenophobia in Israel is far more dangerous to the African refugees than they are to the Israeli public. The primal fear of the Other plays a central role here, as does the government’s utter failure to address the needs of the poor neighborhoods and of the foreigners that gravitate towards them.1
I think another factor is the Israeli addiction to insecurity — the inseparable flipside of our addiction to security, as well as a bit of residue from Diaspora. You could call it chronic societal paranoia. Continue reading Addicted to insecurity→
I sometimes write here, and often post links on Facebook, in criticism of Israel’s government or military. I know what response to expect from most fellow Israelis. Very often, like the other day (when I posted this link), discussion almost immediately includes some old friend throwing in a personal attack on me, either in lieu of an actual argument or in addition to it.
This last attack on Facebook is a true classic; to summarize the gist of my friend’s argument: “you didn’t serve in the army so you can’t judge those who do; you haven’t experienced what they have”. This stuff gets me worked up, but rarely hurts me anymore. The comments are predictable and repetitive and repetitive, and every time I post, I quietly brace myself for them. Saying something bad about the IDF is spitting on a holy cow, as far as almost all Israelis are concerned, and criticism of the government is often taken as an attack on the existence of the state.
I haven’t always been this vocal. After I moved away (2007), for over a year I avoided reading any news from Israel and, even more, avoided making any comment on the situation there. At the time it seemed nothing ever changed, and reading about it would be painful and useless.
My attitude changed in a process of reflection. I thought a lot: about why I told the IDF I didn’t want to be a soldier1 and later left, about my attitude towards Israel, and about the way I expressed that attitude on the rare occasions that I did. It became clear to me that although I left for mostly childish and wrong reasons, the small part of me that left in protest was kind of right. Things in Israel actually are changing, for the worse, and the many people I love who live there are affected by it.
At the same time, I came to appreciate what an amazing country Israel is, and what a great place to live. I really don’t blame anyone who lives there for loving it so and refusing to let go. I want to live there again as well. Unfortunately, to really enjoy it to the fullest, one has to keep their eyes and ears selectively shut, and one had best check their concern for human rights and justice at the airport. There are government-issued narratives to soothe the conscience, for those who can swallow them.
As a result, they decided that I’m mentally unfit to serve due to lack of motivation, which seems like a reasonable assessment since I would have made an awful soldier. I then volunteered for civilian service and spent a year in the reception/recovery area of a large hospital’s main operating room complex. [↩]
After my previous guest post Beware: Adult Content generated a high volume of traffic to Michael’s blog, he invited me back, and I will be contributing occasionally (even though we both know what really drove the traffic surge were the key words “adult content”). As I end my visit to Leipzig I offer you a piece I wrote during a previous visit two years ago. It is long.
My German Manicure
By Shoshana London Sappir
I am ushered to a downstairs room in the beauty salon. The manicurist, walking a step behind me, says something in German about “links.” My mind flashes straight to Dr. Mengele on the platform. Links – left –means life. Rechts – right – means death. She wants me to take the seat on the left, I realize. I sit down.
“English?” I ask. She struggles with the words “only a little,” giggles and shrugs. I answer with a big smile, trying to convey: “Don’t worry, we’ll be just fine.” Continue reading My German Manicure→
Noam Sheizaf at +972 Magazine brought to my attention a Jerusalem Post editoral which made a few red lights in my head go off (bolding mine):
ISRAEL IS the only country in the world where Jews are the majority. Only here can they enjoy the advantages of living in a state whose language, holidays and national symbols are their own.
Let’s leave aside the truly objectionable stuff in this editorial and focus on the linguistic part. I love Hebrew, in fact, it’s my favorite of Israel’s national symbols. I would like to point out how ludicrous it is for the Post to claim Jewish “ownership” over this, or any, language.
Before anything else, reflect for a moment on the fact that the majority of Jews worldwide do not speak Modern Israeli Hebrew and would probably call another language (usually American English) their own.
The nation is a relatively new construct, dating back just to the end of the 18th century. Naming official national languages was part of the rise of nationalism in Europe. It was part of the creation of a national identity — not artificial, but put together of existing pieces.
To the linguistically uninitiated, it might seem natural that every nation-state has a language “of their own”. German for the Germans, Swedish for the Swedes, Chinese for the Chinese. But languages are actually really bad at sticking to international borders. The Swiss speak Swiss German, which is no more similar to Germany’s Standard German than is Dutch. Standard Swedish is so similar to Norwegian and Danish that the three might be considered dialects of one language, and can be understood mutually with a bit of effort. “Chinese” is not even one language; usually “Chinese” means Standard Mandarin, the official language used by the People’s Republic, but the term includes the many many languages spoken in mainland China, even though many of them only have a writing system in common, remaining unintelligible to one another.
In the case of Modern Israeli Hebrew it should be especially clear that there is not a 1:1 relationship between (Jewish) nation and (Hebrew) language. Modern Hebrew has taken on European structure in almost all areas of grammar (with some very notable exceptions), since those who revitalized it were speakers of European languages. The bulk of Israeli slang is comprised of Arabic loanwords such as ahla and sababa. And the language is spoken by non-Jews as well; the Arabic of Israeli Arabs is so full of Hebrew that efforts are underway to refresh the community’s Arabic vocabulary.
Nonetheless, Modern Hebrew is the result of a conscious effort of will, and one might insist that it is an exceptionally national language. After all, the Zionist made a real, and apparently successful, effort to revive the language of Jewish scripture.
But in fact, even those parts of Modern Hebrew considered “pure Hebrew” — the parts attested in the Bible and other ancient texts — are unlikely to be in any way pure or belong entirely to any ethnic group. Quite simply, no language ever does. The ancient Israelites did not live in isolation, and were surrounded by different peoples with different cultures and different languages. Inevitably, the language they spoke was affected by it, and likely eagerly assimilated elements of the gentiles’ languages, just as all languages have always done everywhere. (but see NOTE below)
The suggestion that the Arabs have no place within our state, that they are a foreign entity that does not belong, is ludicrous and incredibly offensive. It is even ludicrous if you think there’s a god-given right for Jews to be in what was once Cana’an. Modern Israel (and its language) have always had non-Jewish residents (and speakers), most of them Arabs. At no point was the pre-state Yishuv isolated from Arabic culture. Israel has co-existed with Arabs, sometimes more peacefully than at other times, from the very start. Perhaps oddly, I find myself startled to see Israelis railing against Arabic culture as though it were a scary foreign influence. To me, hummus is the national dish, and even those who mistakenly think it’s falafel can’t deny there’s a bit of Arab in us.
Incidentally, sababa shel hummus, roughly “nice hummus”, is a phrase with an [arguably] European structure (cf. English “quite a day” and “hell of a guy” ), made up of two Arabic-loaned content words connected by one Hebrew function word [shel, “of”]. And what phrase could possibly be more Israeli?
I feel there is a general point here about Jewish culture – before, during, and after Diaspora. Before Diaspora, the Israelites were a part of the fabric of the Ancient Near East, going about the typical Ancient Near East national pass-times of worshiping, building, farming and conquering, maintaining a distinct culture and very distinct religion but not without influence from the languages, cultures and religions of their neighbors (who were all influenced in return, and by one another as well). In Diaspora, the Jews of every area developed their own cultural and linguistic remix. The most well-known resulting languages are Yiddish and Ladino, but they are not nearly the only ones. I recently learned that a small Jewish community in northwestern India developed a dialect of Marathi: Judæo-Marathi, still spoken in India and Israel.
And indeed, after Diaspora, the state of Israel has been a cultural patchwork quilt, taking patterns and colors from the many places its residents came from, while remaining firmly grounded in the political and cultural reality of the Middle East, which we are now undoubtedly part of.
One could argue, and perhaps one should, that in all of these cases the borrowing group made the borrowings its own, both by choosing them and by integrating them in a unique way (i.e. fitting loanwords to native phonology and morphology, which Modern Hebrew excels at). But there is nothing particularly Jewish about living in cultural isolation, nor is it a particularly sensible proposition that Modern Hebrew belongs exclusively to Israeli Jews. The Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have been there since before Hebrew was revitalized, Hebrew has been in contact with them ever since, and whether the Jerusalem Post likes it or not, the Arabic language and Palestinian culture are part of the fabric of the Israeli quilt.
Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with Ancient Hebrew and neighboring languages of the same period, such as Philistine, Phoenician, Moabite, Hittite, and Ancient Egyptian, and can’t give examples for loanwords off the top of my head like I can with English and Modern Hebrew. I also don’t know any good source to check (though I’d be eager to get one). But I’ve certainly seen mention on Wikipedia and on Israeli linguistics blogs of loanwords from neighboring languages into Ancient Hebrew, and this is not surprising in the slightest. It would be surprising if it were the other way around.
Related reading tip
Jerry Haber of the Magnes Zionist is writing a fascinating series of articles about “Israel’s ‘Arab Problem'”. Part one, part two. I read them cross-posted on +972 Magazine, which is becoming a more and more central source for my reading…
Israel’s democracy has been showing worrying signs of decay for a while now. Ha-Hem’s “Slippery Slope” blog (Hebrew) has been documenting this decay step by step for a few months now. I’ve been following with horrified fascination.
I brought up the Holocaust in my post on Sunday. The Third Reich, or at least what I know about it, is often on my mind — and growing up in Israel doesn’t help, nor does living in Germany. For many Israelis the Holocaust is the formative national myth. For years now, I’ve been more interested in what came before it — the process of a formally democratic state collapsing into vile jingoistic totalitarianism. The lesson is not “look what those bastards did to our families” but rather “look at what a society considered the height of civilization can turn into, and how”. And this is a lesson applicable to any society. Naturally, I apply it to the society I grew up in.
And there are two very worrying things quite possibly about to be done to Israel by its current right-leaning government and parliament. Exhibit A: a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish, democratic state” may be introduced as a requirement for non-Jews receiving citizenship (summary of details and call to action, by the NIF); Exhibit B: a new “Terror Law” would give the Minister of Defense the authority to announce any organization as a terrorist organization, as well as the authority to strip individuals of their rights (see analysis by Gurvitz).
This may be selfish, but the Terror Bill terrifies me more than the Loyalty Oath. Don’t get me wrong, this Loyalty Oath would connect citizenship with accepting the dominant ideology (and associated religion), making it basically impossible to even call Israel a democracy anymore. But the Terror Bill makes me wonder whether it’s worth the risk of even setting foot in my homeland again. I love visiting, I miss my family and friends, but if this law passes, a visit could potentially turn permanent if some politician’s whim decides I have too many rights. Not to mention I’m worried for my family in Jerusalem — my parents and siblings routinely take part in protests and political activity which may make them “terror suspects” under the new law.
I remember conversations with my mother, years ago, about how being in a country slipping into fascism must be like a frog in a pot full of water. The water is cold at first, gets warm, and the frog must be wondering whether (and when) it’s going to get so hot it has to jump out. For many Jews in Germany before WWII, this was what it was like. Once it was clear they had to jump out, they weren’t allowed to anymore (my paternal grandmother was one of a tiny handful that managed to get out after it was too late; most of her siblings were not so fortunate).
I think as soon as the Knesset gives the Minister of Defense the power to strip you of your right to leave, that’s exactly when it’s time to jump out. Wait any longer, and maybe you won’t be able to anymore.
Comments are open, and I’d love someone to convince me all of this isn’t really all that bad.
I must have gotten this link over Facebook or Twitter, but I can’t recall to whom credit is due. At any rate, I found it interesting, especially because it looks at an aspect of the conflict that is not often discussed but might be one of the most critical in the long run: the experience of Palestinian children.
I grew up aware of the conflict in a very different way from my contemporaries on the Palestinian side. The Mondoweiss post discusses, with many excerpts, a new report criticizing aid organizations’ failure to prevent injustice towards children and to protest Israel’s violations of international law regarding children and their well-being.
Israel routinely treats children as enemies. I think Israel should actually make it part of its security policy to make sure Palestinian children are treated well and protected, because they will grow up to be Palestinians adults who we have a strong interest in not being intensely despised by. I happen to believe that Israel has done genuine grievance to the Palestinians and much of their hate (which is often of the non-compromising raging racist variety) is due to legitimate gripes with what our government (and some of its citizens) have done in the past 63 years. But it seems many in Israel think the Palestinians just hate us for no good reason, and cannot be appeased. Either way, we should be doing our best to show them that we are human and humane, like we keep telling ourselves and the rest of the world. Instead we make their lives a living hell and increasingly allow ourselves to only be represented towards them by our army.
Even if we think that Eden Abergil and her ilk are a marginal phenomenon (Google her if you missed the controversy)– and it can’t be entirely marginal, as Breaking the Silence and others subsequently released more pictures of soldier’s celebrating prisoners and dead opponents — we have an interest in doing our best to minimize animosity towards us. And I find it very difficult to accept that my government is systematically splitting up families, arresting children, interrogating them until they confess, and making it practically impossible for them to lead a normal, healthy childhood. I won’t even mention the number of children Israel apparently killed in “Operation Cast Lead”. Many in Israel may blame the Palestinians’ leaders for it coming to this, but that’s besides the point, as those children will certainly grow up to blame Israel, and that should be prevented, even at great cost and effort.
Like most Israelis, I grew up hearing about the horrors experienced by children in the Holocaust. I can’t help but feel the same despair when I think about how every day, Palestinian children experience things that remind one, even if just a little, of what my paternal grandmother and her contemporaries in Europe went through. And this feeling of despair is compounded by the fact that the perpetrators, this time, are supposed to be representing me and my family — and the families of so many whose childhoods were obliterated by monstrous state violence not so long ago.
The place of children in this conflict is one of the most horrifying aspects of it — on both sides, but especially in those areas where children regularly experience violence and great injustice (which is mostly where the civilians are Palestinians). Peace, and, even more, normalization, will not be possible with generations who have a ruined childhood to hate us for. It’s the kind of thing a person can hardly ever get over, even if they try. I hope Israel’s governments will soon realize this and stop making it impossible to ever end this conflict.
In Germany, I have often heard that maintaining state control of the school system and its curriculum is important for maintaining democracy. This argument is used against the idea of private schools and homeschooling: if people can teach children whatever they want, the argument goes, religious fundamentalists of all kinds will raise the next generation for intolerance.
The good news for Israel is that it has a larger proportion of democratic schools than any other country in the world.2 These schools will be far less affected by these cuts, and moreover, students in democratic schools finish high school with years of first-hand experience in democracy. The bad news is that a major reason it’s so easy to start a democratic school in Israel is that the system is designed to let in religious schools with essentially no requirement that any particular topic be or not be in their curriculum. There are many more religious schools than democratic schools, and I’m willing to bet few, if not none of them, use that freedom to promote democracy and fight intolerance.
Totalitarianism cannot rise without having a firm control over education in some way or another. The governments of Germany — ridden with national guilt as they have been for the past 60 years — use their tight grip on education to promote democracy; but having such central control makes it possible for shifts in the opposite direction, like the one we are seeing in Israel right now. Wherever intolerance is fostered we must speak out against it and fight it. But a democratic state is always at risk of electing intolerant leaders, and in case that ever happens, we had better make sure those leaders don’t have the power to indoctrinate the young generation. As we say in EUDEC, democratic education is a sensible choice for democratic states.
I certainly do not mean to equate Judaism with this sort of racism. My family is full of terrific people who happen to be religiously Jewish and are at least as disgusted by this racism as I am. However, the mainstream in Israel does seem to support a rather nationalistic view of the religion, and the linked article reveals some very disturbing things. [↩]
I did not have the time to find a source to cite for this datum (a quick google search was not enough). I have, however, heard it many times; specifically, I recall Ya’acov Hecht saying that by sheer number of students in democratic schools, Israel has more than any other country in the world — even much bigger ones. There are about 30 democratic schools in Israel, which has a population of about 7 million. I know of no comparable situation in any other country today; the Netherlands had a similar proportion of sociocratic schools (which are a similar thing) but I understand that their numbers have gone down drastically in the past five years. [↩]
An archived blog about education, language, peace, and other fine things